42: From Misery to Meaning

42: From Misery to Meaning

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

From Misery to Meaning

Could we change our attitude, we should not only see life differently, but life itself would come to be different.

~Katherine Mansfield

When I first arrived in Guangzhou, China for my two-year assignment, the contrast to the life I had led in the U.S. was overwhelming. I knew I had agreed to live in a “hardship location,” but despite all the books I had read, I was unprepared for the culture shock I experienced in China’s third largest city. Suddenly I belonged to a minority of two thousand expats among ten million Chinese.

I could not understand a word around me and never recognized where I was because I could not read the signs. I had to constantly clear my throat because of the pollution from the factories and thousands of motorbikes. Combined with the high temperatures and the humidity, it resulted in a permanent gray haze over the city. I felt suffocated by the crowds I encountered wherever I went. From my taxicab sitting in the jammed traffic, I saw ailing beggars in the streets and old women carrying heavy loads on their bent backs. It made me feel guilty for being a rich white woman and helpless because I was lost in a world I could not relate to. Everything I saw seemed so dismal, so depressing. It didn’t take me long to despair and I yearned to be anywhere else but there.

One miserable day, I was complaining to a European colleague. When she told me she had been in Guangzhou for eight years and loved it, I was stunned. How could we experience the same place in such contrasting ways? It was as if we were living in two different universes. She was happy and upbeat. I was depressed and homesick. Where I saw smog, traffic jams, and language barriers, she saw adventure, opportunity, and culture.

I wanted to look at my surroundings the way she did but I did not know how to do it. During the following sleepless night, I challenged myself to identify three things in my environment each day that I would classify as “positive.” It could be anything, as long as it was somehow good or encouraging. In the gloomy world I lived in, this was a difficult exercise. I really had to force myself to be open-minded and creative.

I had a hard time finding the first positive thing around me. But I was determined, and later that afternoon, walking through the crowded streets I started to see things. A smiling child on his mother’s arm. Yes, that counted! A man in a business suit buying a piece of melon from a street vendor and giving it to a beggar. I would not have noticed this scene if I had not forced myself to look. Two women joking as they chose a (live) chicken in the meat market. That was three for Day One. I had made it. I could do it again.

Some days were more difficult than others, but once I started looking for them, I always found my three noteworthy good things. After the first week, the exercise became easier and by week three I didn’t have to actively search anymore. I easily spotted positive things in many places throughout the day. After four weeks, the gray cloud had lifted, and though it still had a long way to go, Guangzhou had started to grow on me. I had also stopped feeling sorry for myself.

Another month later, on the plane to Hong Kong for a weekend of “rest and recreation,” I was surprised to see that more than three quarters of the passengers consisted of Caucasian couples with Chinese girls. The girls all seemed to be between one and three years old and they were dressed in designer children clothing. Many wore headbands with little bows or colored clips in their hair. The parents were hugging and fussing over them.

“Hi, is this lovely girl your daughter?” I asked the woman across the aisle.

“Yes, this is Ellie Li,” she said, swallowing hard. “We’ve carried her photo with us for over a year, but we only just met her in person a couple of days ago.”

Ellie Li was a beautiful Chinese toddler, dressed in jeans and a pink sweatshirt that said, “I am cute.” She kept her dark eyes fixated on her mother while we talked.

“Congratulations, how wonderful,” I said. “Is she from Guangzhou?”

“No, we picked her up in the Nanjing orphanage, but we had to come to the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou to get her immigration papers. And now she is finally coming home to Texas.”

We kept talking and I learned that all U.S. adoptions from mainland China had to be finalized in Guangzhou and that Ellie Li was one of thousands of orphaned girls each year who was moving from abandonment to affection. For all of them, this plane ride was the first leg on their journeys home.

I felt my eyes swelling with tears as it dawned on me that I was surrounded by hundreds of miracles coming true right there, right then. I sat back in my chair and allowed the energy of care and compassion to permeate me. I had to chuckle at the thought that Guangzhou — polluted, crowded, noisy Guangzhou — of all places, had such a special meaning. How could I not be joyful in this place of answered prayers, of love, happiness, and new beginnings?

This insight profoundly impacted my perception of Guangzhou. I had not changed a thing about my environment. But I had changed the way I looked at it. And with it, my experience changed from a dreary and self-pitying existence to a vibrant and enjoyable chapter in my life.

~Rita Bosel

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